Mercedes Bryce Morgan directs Fixation, an uneven but fascinating psychological drama about a woman who undergoes an unorthodox version of therapy.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival)
Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s Fixation is the kind of film that seems to have been created specifically to play in the late-night slots at film festivals. It’s a dark and hallucinatory mix of Pink Floyd: The Wall, Synecdoche, New York and a offering from the Lifetime network, and while I can’t exactly say I completely liked it (or could even pass a quiz regarding its particulars), it’s presented with enough energy and daring that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t quite come together in the end.
Our heroine is Dora (Maddie Hanson) and after the requisite creepy childhood flashback the film opens with her in a hospital undergoing a psychiatric evaluation before standing trial for a particularly heinous crime. Trouble is, she doesn’t remember the crime that she supposedly committed, nor does she recall even entering the hospital, or how long she’s been there. Nevertheless, the esteemed Dr. Clark (Stephen McHattie) is convinced that his wildly experimental approach to evaluations of this sort will be able to unlock the trauma that Dora’s hidden away, and allow him to decide whether she’s fit to stand trial.
The process, which he performs with the aid of Dr. Melanie (Genesis Rodriguez) and an array of aides, is a six-step program that eschews medication and traditional therapies in favor of forcing patients through a harrowing series of bizarre reenactments of events from their pasts, in the hopes that they’ll be able to confront what they’ve done head-on. And yet, even as Dora is pushed from one strange tableau to the next, she remains convinced that something isn’t right about the entire arrangement—she is sure, for example, that the guy who keeps showing up claiming to be her brother is not really her brother. While Dora struggles to recall the circumstances that landed her there, she’s never certain whether she’ guilty or innocent, whether Dr. Clark is helping or deliberately hurting her, or even if what she’s going through is real, or a hallucination.
[I]t’s presented with enough energy and daring that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t quite come together in the end.
The underlying question in William Day Frank’s screenplay essentially boils down to an examination of where the dividing line is between therapy and abuse and the responsibilities of those in charge. It is a provocative premise but it is one that never quite manages to resolve itself from a dramatic standpoint by the time the film comes to its conclusion. However, while Fixation sometimes founders on an intellectual level, it does work on a more visceral level, as the audience is guided through the various rabbit holes of Dora’s existence as she comes to terms with what’s real, what’s fake and what she’s been trying so hard to repress.
This unease is also nicely conveyed through the strong and compelling performance from Hanson (last seen in the equally strange Malignant) as the beleaguered heroine. Indie film stalwart McHattie is also quite good as the doctor, even though he looks like someone who shouldn’t be allowed to play with an Operation game, let alone a fragile psyche.
Though the various strange elements of Fixation don’t always come together to a particularly meaningful point in the end, admittedly this isn’t the kind of film where that’s a fatal flaw. That said, a lot of those elements do work on an individual basis, creating something quite unique and memorable, and leaving the viewer eager to see what Morgan does in the future.